De-programming International Aid for Trade

03.23.2022 | Sousena K. Tefera

It is foolish is to repeat the same thing expecting a different result.

The WTO TFA agreement took a pragmatic approach in delineating each State Party obligation under three different categories of commitment. The last category, Category C commitments, is the list of TFA mandates countries have sought technical and financial assistance from developing countries to comply with their obligations. TFA accomplished a huge success in codifying technical and financial assistance. In addition to grants, international monetary institutions provision of loans is also at critical part of the technical and financial assistance package.

As important as aid for trade is, the current model of technical assistance is not sustainable. In the face of dwindling resources, where even the developing countries are looking inward dedicating fewer resources toward international aid, optimization of resources, results, and ensuring sustainability is a key.

Most agencies that provide technical assistance in the space of trade facilitation also provide other types of assistance that are often less complex in nature compared to trade. However, the project management model is similar despite the complexity and challenge posed. The waterfall method, where laying out requirements is followed by design which is also in turn followed by implementation, verification or testing, deployment of solution in a sequential order.

There is no iterative process, little to no opportunity/resource is allocated to move back and forth between the stages of development. One would need to have maximum certainty to jump from one to other. This process flow is advantageous to implement straightforward development projects. However, it could have a devastating and costly effect if we follow the same model for complex projects with multiple stakeholders as is evident in trade facilitation projects. Rather the most plausible, less costly way of implementing TF projects should be either a mix of waterfall and agile project management, or exclusively agile project management.

Moving on to the next layer: even though the frontline agency that is responsible for clearing goods is Customs, it requires the support, true and effective collaboration, or deliberate delegation of power from the other agency. Providing capacity building programs, to a large degree, to Customs agencies and disregarding other agencies is costly and affects the sustainability of any proposed solution. As the saying goes, we are only strong and as fast as the weakest link.

In addition, a wholistic stakeholder engagement from prior to the defining of the project to the implementation of the solution is fundamental. In the traditional project management methodology, most engagements are bilateral where most often the recipient of the technical assistance is the informed, consulted with the donor agency. This approach alienates and makes other stakeholders, like the private sector and third-party government agencies, an after thought in the development process.

Recommendation:

Co-creation and implementation to create a sense of ownership of the project, robust stakeholder engagement strategy, metrics-based project selection where we prioritize some projects over others. It is also imperative to have a charter/memorandum of understanding for a plausible definition of done/success. Shifting from the traditional water fall approach to agile methodology is possible. However it requires conscious decisions by entities involved. It would most certainly require the change in mindset, operations, and policies of stakeholders.

At CIPE, and through the Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation, we have a team of dedicated trade professionals committed to modernizing border agencies and creating an environment where international trade is seen as a right and not a privilege.